Singer-songwriter Billie Eilish is not even out of her teens and she has already won awards in the Grammys’ top four categories: Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist.
She’s achieved something else rare for someone her age—having a documentary made about her by a major filmmaker. Emmy winner R.J. Cutler went behind the lens for Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry, the Apple TV film that’s now in contention for Emmy consideration.
It’s a portrait of the artist as a young woman, illuminating Eilish’s creative process, her close relationship with older brother Finneas O’Connell, with whom she makes music, and her parents. It also explores the way she has negotiated fame, and depressive tendencies that she doesn’t conceal.
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“I feel the dark things,” Elish says at one point in the film. “I feel them very strongly.”
Cutler (The World According to Dick Cheney, The September Issue) describes his documentary as a coming-of-age story.
“The fact that we could tell that story honestly, cinematically, emotionally, with great humor, it was very exciting,” Cutler tells Deadline. “It was an exciting film to make.”
The film’s exceptional level of intimacy is appropriate for a recording artist who has fostered a remarkably symbiotic relationship with her audience.
“I don’t think of them as fans. Ever,” Eilish insists. “They’re like a part of me.”
Filming Eilish in concert, Cutler kept the focus on the bond between the performer and her public—many of them young women and girls—not the grand scale of the venues.
“My direction to [cinematographer Jenna Rosher] was, ‘Be in the moment with her and film for intimacy and emotion and connection. Not…’ I don’t know what else. Not something else,” Cutler recalls. “This goes to trust. This goes to the dynamic of the filmmaking process, where Billie trusted Jenna to be on stage with her.”
Eilish’s sensitive songs, delivered in a fluttery voice reminiscent of the Canadian artist Feist, often explore emotional wounds, the misbehavior of men towards women, and power dynamics in relationships. But she can also shift into a frenzied gear, hurling herself into a stomping stage performance (the film captures Eilish injuring herself in one such dance at a concert in Milan). The spectacle is an ecstatic eruption of energy.
“It’s shamanistic,” Cutler notes. “It really is, and we’re conscious of that, and you see that.”
Cutler draws a potential parallel between the emerging talent of Eilish and, many years earlier, Bob Dylan. The latter singer-songwriter was filmed in his early 20s by director D.A. Pennebaker for the classic 1965 documentary Dont Look Back.
“It suggests a future that you can’t help but be very curious about, in the same way you were when you saw Dont Look Back, in its moment, or that audiences saw in its moment,” he observes. “But imagine seeing that young Bob Dylan at that moment and realizing, my goodness, this is a voice that could be informing us, reflecting on our times, illuminating the human experience, for decades to come, as he turned out to be, and as Billie very well might be.”
Dylan has always repelled efforts to pin him down, remaining elusive, but Eilish evinces a willingness to be transparent, perhaps reflecting the modern age of social media and its imperative of sharing. During a Grammy Museum interview with a journalist, a moment included in the documentary, Eilish expresses surprise that anyone would find it odd that she’s open about herself and her struggles.
“I’m telling you how I am as a human,” Eilish says. “Why is that weird?”
Eilish’s deeply personal journals are seen in the film, filled with dark drawings and despondent jottings. “An intense feeling of the absolute end,” she wrote in one journal entry. “Am going to drink acid. I am a void. The epitome of nothing.”
Cutler praises his subject for being so real.
“We see her struggles with her mental health. We see her learning how to put herself and her own needs ahead of those of others in relationships, where the opposite would be unhealthy. We see her recognize that that’s a challenge for her. And then we see her rise to the challenge,” Cutler notes. “We see her do it with love and empathy. We see the way she turns her personal struggles into art and the power of that and the power of that to connect with others. We see the full picture. We see her carry the burden and opportunity of who she is.”
Eilish was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, a neurological disorder, as a child. There’s no effort in the film to disguise the physical symptoms she experiences at times, but it’s not a focus of the documentary. As Eilish wrote in an Instagram post when she was 16, “I’ve just never wanted people to think of tourettes every time they think of me.”
“If you watched [the film] looking for it, you’re going to see that the Tourette’s is present with her. It just is. It’s who she is,” Cutler comments. “The context is it’s part of her daily existence… I don’t even want to over-explain it. The film accepts her on her own terms and aspires to accept her on her own terms at all points. And that includes her Tourette’s as well as other aspects of her life and who she is.”
Billie Eilish: The World’s A Little Blurry is one of three nonfiction projects Cutler has in the running for Emmys this year. The others are Belushi, his Showtime documentary about the late comedian John Belushi, and Dear…, an Apple TV docu-series in which prominent artists and public figures share particularly touching or meaningful letters they have received from fans. It’s a different, and ultimately very revealing way of doing biography, and the subjects—Oprah, Jane Goodall, Spike Lee, ballet dancer Misty Copeland, among others—reveal how the work of others has moved them.
“One person’s work, one person’s deeds can change the world. Not only was that notion evident, but it was also evident that each of these people had had their own lives changed by someone as they were coming of age,” Cutler says. “We’re thrilled about it. And we have a second season coming up that we love.”
In an intensely busy stretch of work for Cutler, it’s apparent no project is more special to him than his documentary on Billie Eilish.
“I’m so proud of it. It’s a film that is very near and dear to my heart for many reasons, and not the least of which is my affection for Billie and her family. What great people,” he tells Deadline. “We’re really observational filmmakers who were there to see things as clearly as possible, and to tell the story that we witnessed and that we experienced, as we witnessed and experienced it.”